Nav: Home

Climate change has long-term impact on species adaptability

May 20, 2019

Historic climate change events can have a lasting impact on the genetic diversity of a species, reveals a new study published in Current Biology. This unexpected finding emerged from an analysis of the alpine marmot's genome.

An iconic animal known to tourists and mountaineers, the alpine marmot is a large rodent exquisitely adapted to cold climates. Since the disappearance of its ice-age habitat, the alpine marmot has resided in high-altitude meadows in the Alps.

In this new study co-led by the Francis Crick Institute, an international team of scientists sequenced the genomes of alpine marmots living in three sites in the French and Italian Alps, and found that the animal's genetic diversity is among the lowest of wild mammals. By reconstructing the marmot's genetic past with the help of fossil records, they discovered that it lost its genetic diversity during the last ice age as a consequence of multiple climate related adaptations.

"We would not have expected the genetic diversity of alpine marmots to be so low," says Toni Gossmann, first-author of the paper and researcher at the University of Sheffield and Bielefeld University in Germany. "They have a large population size, and we found little genetic evidence of inbreeding. But ironically, the very adaptations that helped them survive have trapped them in a state of low genetic diversity."

A slow metabolism was advantageous to marmots during the ice age, enabling them to build up large fat reserves that could help them survive through hibernation. Similarly, marmots that invested in a small number of 'high quality' offspring, rather than having lots of offspring who wouldn't survive the harsh conditions, passed their genes on to the next generation. Over time, a slower breeding cycle and lower mutation rate caused the gene pool to shrink.

As the ice-age ended around 12,000 years ago, the animals were forced to retreat to the high Alps to escape the warming climate. This lead to a 'bottleneck effect' and meant that the surviving marmots were even more genetically similar. Surprisingly, they have not recovered from this bottleneck over time.

Even though alpine marmots are abundant in number, being genetically similar to each other means that they could struggle to adapt to and survive new environmental conditions such as the introduction of a new disease, or further changes in climate.

"If genetic variation is important for future adaptation, then it's not enough to consider current population size, you need to consider life history to get the full picture," says John Welch, Lecturer in Genetics at the University of Cambridge, and co-author of the study.

Markus Ralser, Crick senior group leader and head of the Charité Institute of Biochemistry, who led the study, adds: "We should take the results of the study seriously, as we can see similar warnings from the past. In the 19th century, the passenger pigeon was one of the most abundant land birds in the Northern Hemisphere, yet in spite of its high numbers, it was completely wiped out within a few years. A large population isn't necessarily safe from extinction in the face of climate change."

A next step for the research would be to investigate more closely other animals that survived the ice age. This could reveal other species trapped in a state of low genetic diversity, that would be more vulnerable to climate change and other environmental changes.
-end-


The Francis Crick Institute

Related Climate Change Articles:

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.
Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.
Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.
Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.
A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.
Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).
Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.
Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
Predicting climate change
Thomas Crowther, ETH Zurich identifies long-disappeared forests available for restoration across the world.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.